Reflecting on the Psalms: Prayer as an outcry against enemies

When we pray, we come with all our faculties of memory, understanding and will.

Sep 25, 2021

By Msgr James Gnanapiragasam

When we pray, we come with all our faculties of memory, understanding and will. We remember what is happening to us, we begin to see the Lord’s plan for us and we ask the grace to move on in his gracious plan. But couched within these faculties, we can discern feelings and emotions that could well up in us as we set ourselves to pray. Some of these feelings are clearly ‘unchristian’, to say the least. Can we pray for the downfall of our enemies?

Anyone who prays the psalms from the Bible would certainly be struck by some of the invocations of curse and execration against the enemies of Israel. The psalmist prays curses like, “God, break the teeth in their mouths, snap off the fangs of these young lions, Yahweh,” Psalms 58:6. Or again, “May his life be cut short, someone else take his office, his children be orphaned, his wife be widowed,” Psalms 109:8-9. These psalms of execration can be so violent that one wonders how to pray them.

The Church removed such psalms, or parts of them from the Prayer of the Church after the Second Vatican Council. This was to help people pray especially during the liturgy. Commentators seem to differ in their opinion about reciting these psalms; some would recommend praying these psalms without leaving out any of the verses. We come to God with all our feelings of joy and peace, but also of anger, of pain and oppression, when we pray. While we do not imitate the wishes of these psalmists against their oppressors, we can still learn from their willingness to express such feelings before God as real people. However, we should still remember Christ’s words of loving and praying for our enemies.

Psalms of Supplication (6) Psalms 136 (137) Week 4 Tuesday Evening Prayer

This is another psalm that has become famous in literature and music. It is a communal lament and was composed after the exile. The psalmist calls to memory the harrowing experiences the exiles faced in Babylon under their conquerors. The structure is very plain:

Verses 1-3 recall their suffering; Verses 4-6 recall their remembrance of their holy city; Verses 7-9 call down curses on their enemies. Verses 1-3: Babylon was situated at the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates in Mesopotamia, present day Iraq. The exiles had settled (‘sat’) along the canals, possibly to facilitate their ritual purifications for their liturgical meetings. They were sad, they wailed because they remembered their holy city, Jerusalem. The oppressors mocked them about Jerusalem, which had fallen. Come cheer up! Let there be some joy! Sing for us your joyful Temple songs!

Verses 4-6: The Israelites, though defeated, still remembered Jerusalem and the Temple. They refused to sing the holy songs of Zion on alien soil. They even cursed their right hand and their tongue if these agreed to play and sing. Only Jerusalem should be prized above all their joys! The pain of losing their cherished home and Temple was unbearable. And now this taunting of the soldiers belittling their city that was supposed to be “strongly compact” (Psalms 122). How could they sing psalms like Psalms 46, 48 or 76 that speak of Jerusalem being impregnable and whose inhabitants were considered safe?

Verses 7-9: These verses are left out in the Divine Office, as explained in the introduction. They contain curses against Edom, which joined forces with the Babylonians in attacking Judah, and against the chief destroyer, Babylon. This is the law of talion (a pay back): “Let the evil recoil on my foes; you who are faithful destroy them,” Psalm 54:7. So it is not surprising to read that the prayer uses violent words like smashing the children against the rock! It seems that this brutal custom was common in ancient times after a victorious army defeated a people and burnt their cities.

If we decide to pray this whole psalm as it is, then we pray knowing there are forces of evil that exist in our hearts and in society and the world. Psalm 136 (137) has been called A Tale of Two Cities, Babylon and Jerusalem. Babylon, being the pinnacle of pride against God (Tower of Babel) and Jerusalem symbolising the Church, symbol of the New Jerusalem. This carried on into the New Testament, especially in the Book of Revelation, where Rome’s pagan anti-Christian imperial power was referred to as Babylon. St Augustine, in his book City of God, refers to these two cities that constantly vie for our attention. Let us be constant in our rejection of the worldly allure of Babylon and aspire towards the New Jerusalem, our heavenly home.

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